Gophers snap losing streak with offensive explosion

Minnesota rebounded from its worst shooting performance of the season with an 81-69 win against Nebraska.

Gophers senior Ralph Sampson III takes a shot during a game against Nebraska Saturday at William Arena.

Gophers senior Ralph Sampson III takes a shot during a game against Nebraska Saturday at William Arena.

Charlie Armitz

Big Ten basketball took a day off on Senior Day at Williams Arena, and the Gophers capitalized.

Minnesota set a conference season-high in points Saturday as it defeated Nebraska 81-69 to close out the Big Ten’s regular season.

Five Gophers players scored in double figures, led by Chip Armelin’s career-high 20 points, as the home team put on an offensive clinic against a lackluster Huskers defense.

“We won the battle on the boards, took care of the basketball — all the things that you have to do to win,” head coach Tubby Smith said.

Minnesota also snapped a six-game losing streak during which it had scored just 56 points per game.

The Gophers (6-12 Big Ten) shot 54 percent from the field and made 10 shots from long range. Four days earlier, they had shot 24 percent — the lowest of any Big Ten team this season — in a 52-45 loss at Wisconsin.

“I liked our entire team’s energy,” Smith said. “We came in needing a win. I think our fans saw a team that’s upbeat and our future’s bright.”

Senior Ralph Sampson III had 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks in what could have been his last game at Williams Arena.

But it was Minnesota’s younger players that stole the show.

Junior Rodney Williams had 16 points, including three electrifying dunks. His first dunk — a poster slam over 6-foot-10 Brandon Ubel — came just before a 20-2 Gophers first-half run that turned the game around.

“He scored 16 points and you’d think he ended up with 40,” Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler said of Williams.

Armelin, a sophomore, scored 12 of his 20 points on 3-pointers, and sophomore Austin Hollins scored 12 of his 13 points from beyond the arc.

Armelin and Hollins combined to make their first six 3-pointers in the first half, which helped Minnesota grab a 34-22 lead after it had trailed 20-14.

Smith said Armelin’s energy off the bench was an asset the team had lacked while it was losing.

“We haven’t had a guy that can get hot in the last six, seven games,” Smith said. “That’s what we needed. We need that [scoring] from anybody that comes off the bench, or anybody that’s in the game.”

Minnesota was aided by a Huskers defense that allowed open 3-point attempts and uncontested drives to the basket throughout the game.

“I had to question how good our defense was,” Sadler said. “You’ve got to defend the 3-point shot better than we did.”

Nebraska had played well on defense in its last two games, holding Michigan State and Iowa to 62 points each in losses. But Saturday’s loss more closely resembled an All-Star Game-style shootout.

The Huskers’ Bo Spencer had 23 points — 21 on 3-pointers, all of which came in the second half. The Gophers left Nebraska’s leading scorer open throughout the game, but they never paid the price, as the Huskers frequently responded with an equally poor defensive play.

Minnesota tallied a conference season-high 23 assists in the win while committing 12 turnovers.

“We kind of struggled scoring the basketball on and off this season,” Williams said, “so I think it’s real good to see that we’re still capable of doing that.”

The Gophers’ offense will likely face a tougher test in the Big Ten tournament, which begins March 8. Minnesota, the 10th seed, will play seventh-seeded Northwestern in the first round.

The Wildcats (8-10 Big Ten) have caught fire of late after a poor start, but they will likely need to beat the Gophers to earn their first-ever NCAA tournament bid.

Northwestern defeated Minnesota 64-53 in Evanston, Ill., on Feb. 18 by utilizing a 1-3-1 zone defense that forced 19 turnovers.

A month earlier, the Gophers blew out the Wildcats 75-52 at Williams Arena.

“We still have a feeling here about making that run [in the tournament],” Sampson said. “We know exactly what we have to do, what we have to execute.”